On last Wednesday’s student demo, I and three other PhD students marched as the UCL Historians’ Bloc. Our placards summoned the spirits of E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. It can seem as if raising a smile is the most to hope for from a protest when its manner, timing and location are subject to police permission (last year when the police threatened to use rubber bullets demonstrators responded with: ‘If I wanted to get shot I’d play Call of Duty’). Coming down the Embankment I bumped into an undergraduate from the course I teach on the revolutions of 1848. I’d been marking their essays the evening before for approximately £7 an hour. He told me he was one of UCL’s delegates to this year’s NUS conference. The slogan they chose for the demonstration was: ‘Tax the rich to fund education.’
The NUS president, Liam Burns, like all of his recent predecessors, is a member of the Labour Party, and the Union leadership preferred to rally around the Blairite bon mots ‘Educate, Empower, Employ’, which sounds like a slogan for one of the think tanks for which former NUS presidents seem to end up shilling. It is characteristic of an organisation that disowned student radicalisation in the winter of 2010 and which, like the Labour Party itself, isn’t opposed to charging students to go to university but disputes only how much to charge and how to collect the money. Michael Chessum, the president of the University of London Union and an organiser for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, described the NUS leadership as ‘demobilising and intellectually unserious’.
The demo was a wash-out in any case. The NUS had agreed a route with the police that took us along the Embankment towards Parliament, but then turned left across Waterloo Bridge to a rally at Kennington. No programme, no demands, and not even a political target for our anger. As the rain fell on a thinning crowd marching nowhere, the UCL Historians’ Bloc disbanded. Half of us went home to work, the other two to the pub, where we heard that Burns had been egged at the rally. This, it seems, was the work of the Imaginary Party, who had decided to eggucate Burns on the symbolic power of direct action.